Back around 1000 CE, surnames were not as common or set as they are now. Someone might just be known as John or Mary. If a second Mary showed up then you might be known as Mary of Kent, or Mary the weaver. John the smith or Liam of the potters’ field or Elizabeth from Gower got shortened in time to John Smith, Liam Pottersfield and Elizabeth Gower.
The taking of a surname started in the south and slowly spread north as cities and villages grew. The gentry were the first to take surnames and only around the 14th century did surnames become the norm for the common people.
When John Smith and Mary Kent married, she did not become Mary Smith but retained her name. Names became a little more standardized and were passed down in the family. No longer was there Erik son of Anders, and Bjorn son of Erik. They went through a transition of Erik Andersen and his son was Bjorn Eriksen. This is still done in the Scandinavian countries but I’m not sure if it changes per generation any more but there will be a Sigrid Eriksdottir and a Bjorn Eriksen, depending on your gender.
As far as English speaking, European culture went, the surnames stabilized. When John Smith and Mary Kent married, she did not become Mary Smith but retained her name, for a while. This was common practice but seems to have shifted somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, though it is hard to pin down when this change happened. There is some indication it was happening earlier. In other cultures women may never change their names or take on hyphenated or other joined surnames.
Being that European culture of the time (and still) ran on a patrilineal system it’s no surprise. It’s been argued, but in most cases, it is a woman’s choice. In my mother’s era women were no longer entities of their own but became part of the man, Adam’s rib, so to speak, with marriage. Mary Kent became Mrs. Smith, but even moreso, she was Mrs. John Smith. No longer did she have a name or identity of her own. Mr. Smith remained the same, no matter if he was married, single or divorced. Miss Mary Kent advertised her availability with that honorific and that she belonged to someone when she took Mrs.
Because I believe so much in equality, I don’t think it’s right or fair that a woman always takes the man’s name. But “always” is not the way it is anymore. Rock stars, movie stars and doctors often keep their birth names, not changing when they marry. Married women might be Ms. now instead of Mrs.
The rules change in different countries and I was aghast to see that in England today (according to the website on name changes) a woman is still referred to as Mrs. John Smith as is “correct” and “traditional” according to the site. Because it’s tradition to have slavery, or to beat spouses or to throw out working TVs does not make it right. Traditions change. Some of the argument against keeping one’s birth name (if a woman) is because it will cause consternation, people won’t accept it and it will be difficult. In other words they’re saying, don’t rock the boat and be happy we let you vote.
I’m single but were I not I would not take my husband’s last name. I would keep my name or might consider hyphenating it. I know one couple that chose a brand new name for themselves and another couple that did the same but combined parts of their birth names. But why should I change my identity and he assume that he doesn’t have to? Why do I have to become the posession of a man. I certainly would never ever become a Mrs. John Smith. I remember my mother and women of her era having trouble getting credit cards in their own names once they divorced, because the companies presumed they were with men and issued the cards in Mr. John Smith’s name.
In Canada, the rules change province by province. I believe certain human rights pertain across the country but what costs in name changes will change. In BC, each person can keep their birth name, the woman can take the man’s or the man can take the woman’s. Should they want to hyphenate or use both names, that becomes a legal change of name for which they must pay. But otherwise, they can keep their name or change to it at a later date, only paying those costs associated with getting new ID, like driver’s licenses or passports.
In Alberta, it’s mostly the same but I believe a man must pay if he changes his name to his wife’s. There is another example of something not being fair. It’s assumed a woman will change her name and a man will not. A woman doesn’t have to pay but a woman does. I just wonder when the world will see women as equal human beings. It happens in some places and in others, women have limited rights.
I’m not saying one shouldn’t change a name but I think each person should think before they do so: is it necessary? Why me? Why not him/her? Will my identity change? Do I have to belong to someone? Should we choose a completely new name? It goes on. I just think that people changing their names because “it’s always been done” is not reason enough.
Here is a thesis on the changing of women’s surnames.